One Well-Chosen Detail: Write Juicy Descriptions Without Overwhelming Your Reader

From Jane Friedman:

Have you ever read a description in a book and actually stopped to say to yourself, “Dang, that’s good.” And then maybe read it again?

If so, you’ve probably also read a book where you found yourself mumbling, “I really don’t need to know every detail about this guy’s library/tools/muffin recipe” as you flip a few pages to find where the story picks up again.

It takes practice to write immersive descriptions that draw readers in, without going overboard so that we bore them and lose their attention. It’s one of the more delicate elements of craft.

Let’s start with how to write lush prose.

Writing engaging descriptions

I was reading Moonglow, by Michael Chabon, recently and came across this description of an ominous figure:

His close-cropped skull was indented on one side as by the corner of a two-by-four. In the crevice formed by his brow and cheekbones, his eyes glinted like dimes lost between sofa cushions.

The specificity of the description just floored me. I can absolutely see this guy in my head and I wouldn’t want to bump into him in a parking lot staircase. It got me thinking about great descriptions, and their opposite: clichés.

The dreaded cliché

A cliché is any turn of phrase that you’ve ever heard before: fire-engine red, soft as a pillow, robin’s egg blue, fast as a speeding train. You get the idea.

Basically, a cliché is a symbol. It’s the literary equivalent of clipart. 

. . . .

Characters can be cliché too. If you’re writing an elderly lady and you tell us she has gray hair and wrinkles around her eyes, an image will form in the mind of the reader, sure, but an opportunity has been missed to create a specific character, one unlike any other.

As an example, consider this description from Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping:

… in the last years she continued to settle and began to shrink. Her mouth bowed forward and her brow sloped back, and her skull shone pink and speckled within a mere haze of hair, which hovered about her head like the remembered shape of an altered thing. She looked as if the nimbus of humanity were fading away and she were turning monkey. Tendrils grew from her eyebrows and coarse white hairs sprouted on her lip and chin. When she put on an old dress the bosom hung empty and the hem swept the floor. Old hats fell down over her eyes. Sometimes she put her hand over her mouth and laughed, her eyes closed and her shoulder shaking.

The difference is in the details. Specific details are what lift descriptions out of cliché. But digging deep for details is difficult because our brains are inherently lazy. We see something pale blue. We check our mental files for ways of describing it and come up with “sky blue.” Accurate, yes, but you’ve missed the chance to describe the object as only you can.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman